Blog Archive

Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Life Serving Others (on Aime Cesaire)


On April 17, 2008, the great Martinique-born poet Aimé Césaire died in Fort-de-France at the age of 94. The news came from Beatrice Mousli, while I was dining with her, Paul Vangelisti, and Dennis Phillips at a Lebanese restaurant in Orange, California, were we had been attending the & Now Festival for literature.

Césaire had been the first choice, in 1994, for the America Awards for International Writing, given by my Contemporary Arts Educational Project, and had long been an important figure in my reading. Indeed he was a poet to whom many Angelenos felt close, in particular Will Alexander, whose work was influenced by the negritude poets, and Césaire’s major translator, Clayton Eshleman. I had planned to publish a new translation of some of his work as one of the last books published by Sun & Moon Press; but, although I had obtained the rights, the publication, alas, never came about.

Born in Basse-Pointe, Martinque in 1913, Césaire was the son of Fernand Elphège, a man educated as a teacher, but who worked as a manager of a sugar estate. The poet’s mother was a seamstress, and the family lived in fairly harsh conditions. As Césaire later portrayed it:

And the bed of planks from which my race has risen, all my race
from this bed of planks on its feet of kerosene cases, as if the old
bed had elephantiasis, covered with a goat skin, and its dried banana
leaves and its rags, the ghost of a mattress that is my grandmother’s
bed (above the bed in a pot full of oil a candle-end whose flame looks
like a fat turnip, and on the side of the pot, in letters of gold: MERCI).


Receiving a scholarship, Césaire traveled to Paris in 1931, studying at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and with fellow students Léopold Senghor (from Senegal) and Léon Damas (from French Guiana) founded the magazine L’Etudiant noir (The Black Student) with the stated attempt “to reunite black people who are considered French by law and nationality to their own history, traditions, and languages, to the culture which truly expresses their soul.” A decade later, this would be transformed into the concerns of negritude, encompassing all persons of African descent, and later enlarged to include black cultures internationally.

In 1936 the poet began work on his famed Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Memorandum on My Martinique), a work published in 1939. In 1937 he married fellow Martinican Suzanne Roussi, and in 1939 returned with her to Martinique with their young son. There he became a teacher at the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, teaching the psychiatrist and essayist Franz Fanon and inspiring the poet-novelist Édouard Glissant.

Throughout the 1940s Césaire and his wife edited the influential journal Tropiques while he wrote many of his most important poetic works, including Armes miraculeuses (1946), Soeil cou coupé (1948), and, supported by the French Communist Party, became the major of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French Assembly for Martinique, the former position which he held until 2001.

In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungry, Césaire resigned from the Communist Party, stating his position in Lettre à Maurice Thorez. Two years later he founded the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.

In the 1950s and 60s he continued writing major poetic works such as Corps perdu (1950), Ferrements (1960), and Cadastre (1961), as well as plays such as Et les Chiens se taisaient, La Tragédie de roi Christophe, Une Tempête (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest), and Une Saison au Congo, a play about Patrice Lumumba, translated into English in 1968.

Césaire’s work, influenced by Surrealism, was filled with a heightened sense of language, presenting a world in which one could see and smell the magical world about:

with the slice of sky on a hunk of earth
you beasts who hiss into the face of this dead woman
you free ferns between the murderous rocks
at the extreme of the island between conches too vast for
their destiny
when noon sticks its canceled stamps on the tempestuous
folds of the she-wolf
beyond the frame of all known science
and the mouth in the linings of the nest satisfied with islands
gulped like a sou

(from “Magic,”
Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Dennis Kelly)


Césaire’s whole life might be said to represent a plea for Blacks throughout the world to work together against hatred, prejudice, and greed. But despite his attempts, he recognized also the immense difficulties, and perhaps the impossibility, of those goals. As the Sanza Player in A Season in the Congo predicts, each African country will be left to itself:

Fellow Africans, that’s the tragedy. A hunter catches sight of a crowned stork in
the tree top. Luckily the tortoise has seen the hunter. The stork is saved, you will
say. And indeed, the tortoise tells the big leaf, who’s supposed to tell the creeper,
who’s supposed to tell the bird. Oh no! It’s everybody for himself. Result: the
hunter kills the bird, takes the big leaf to wrap the bird in, and cuts the creeper to tie
up the leaf… And oh yes, I forgot. He even walks off with the tortoise. Africans,
my brothers! When will you understand.

(Translated by Ralph Manheim)
Los Angeles, June 15, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Death of the Father (on the death of John H. Messerli)

My father
David, Douglas and Pat


My father and mother's wedding photo

When the news came, I immediately called the airlines and made a reservation. I would be traveling the very next day.

The news had been long in coming, but I had expected it for some time. My father, who had suffered prostate cancer several years earlier, had lately been having problems. It first began with simple bleeding—although it was not so simple! By the time I was awarded the American Book Award for Publishing in 1998, my parents deciding to travel to Chicago to see the ceremony, I recognized that his condition had radically changed. Before the ceremony even got underway, my father, who had gone off to the bathroom, was “having serious problems,” so reported a man who, with his wife, had been previously talking with my folks. I ran upstairs in distress. Upon entering the bathroom I witnessed my father, for the first time in my life, as an old man, naked within the stall, bleeding uncontrollably, attempting to stem the blood dripping from his ass with toilet paper. A short while later he returned downstairs, hurrying off to their hotel to change suits. My mother had brought another suit along in preparation for just such an event.
Our later celebratory dinner at the famed Cape Cod Room of the Drake hotel—a dinner with which I’d long planned to celebrate with my parents—was darkened by the fact that my father no longer felt well enough to eat.
For months before he had been part of the University of Iowa’s first hypobaric experiments; for weeks he’d driven daily from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City to lie in the hypobaric chamber which, delivering a high content of oxygen, was supposed to help in the healing of where they had treated him with radiation. But he had of late been bleeding again, and by the time the telephone call had come, he had bled heavily into so many of his major organs, that he had had to have a colostomy. His kidney had also been weakened. When, on the morning of his 78th birthday, September 11, 2001, I called him to discuss the news—two planes that morning had flown into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon—he and my mother had heard nothing; he was unresponsive.
By the time of my January 2002 visit, my mother, behaving as strong-willed and determined as I had always known her to be, seemed to be in control; yet you could perceive that she was more than shaken, clearly on edge. She’d told me that, because of the drugs they had previously prescribed, he’d had terrible nightmares, demanding that the police come, that the house was on fire, that strangers had captured the place. So violent had he become that she had insisted several times that he call my brother, who had had to come to settle my father back into his bed.
Now doctors at the local Cedar Rapids hospital, St. Luke’s, had suddenly found that the cancer had returned, metastasizing to other parts of his body. For some inexplicable reason, the University of Iowa hospital had failed to test for the return of the cancer itself.
I flew to St. Louis and then to Cedar Rapids, taxiing to the hospital room in which family members were gathered. Seeing my father suddenly after several years of illness made me immediately aware that I had not fully recognized the seriousness of his condition. My father’s face looked thin and drawn, his legs had atrophied to little more than long batons. Clearly he could no longer walk. He was also almost entirely unaware of his surroundings; my mother had already told me that he had seen spiders gathering on the flowers that people had sent him in sympathy of his condition. I wasn’t sure whether he truly recognized who I was, in part because all visitors were now required to wear gloves and a mask.
Soon my brother arrived, sitting in a dark corner of the room, writing on a small blackboard above his head Midwestern words of encouragement such as “You are my hero,” “keep fighting,” etc. My brother was a football coach, and, as my mother had reported, was having difficulty facing this “ballgame.” For days and days, he’d shown up, sitting long into the night, saying nothing, except, occasionally, to break into tears. He’d even sought out, so I was told, a psychiatrist, perhaps his first encounter with that branch of medicine. Dave had been so close to my father that he was now unable to deal with the situation.
I had only the one evening to assimilate the facts, since the hospital was evidently delivering up my father to us the next day for his return home. But I already understood that the “fight” my brother was encouraging was a meaningless concept. My father was dying: I could observe that even in the remnants of his body, and when I was told some of the facts, it became apparent that he hadn’t long to live.

All night long I lay awake, trying to comprehend what I was facing. Although I loved my father, that love seemed abstract, clouded by the years and years of perceived and stated differences between us and his outright rejection—in large part to do with my gay sexuality and my several intellectual rebellions against his values. My mother and I were seasoned fighters, both strong-headed believers in the fight—any battle we determined was facing us. Although she often presented herself as passive, she was a superb campaigner, and I an often brutal opponent. I had determined, however, that this time there would be no battles; she was an old woman, certainly not a person who had any effect on my life! I could see the tiredness in her eyes, the despair in the way she carried her frame.

So now I was bringing him home and hoped to help nurse him through his last days. But how to even carry him into the house? My mother had made no provisions for a wheelchair, already declaring that she, immaculate housekeeper she was, would not allow the wheels of such a chair to run a track across her spotless and daily vacuumed carpet.
As we were about to take him to the wheelchair that would carry him to the car, I noticed that the nurses put out a couple of chairs, set a few feet apart, so that he might be able to support himself as he moved toward the vehicle, and suddenly I determined how we might manage his voyage from car to bed. As we were about to drive away, the nurse who had accompanied us to the car, leaned in to kiss my father goodbye.
On the way home I had suggested that he might want to drive by the old senior-high school building wherein he had spent so many years of his life, but he responded that he only wanted to get back home and into bed. Now suddenly we were faced with the difficulty of granting his wish. I turned off the car and told my mother and father to wait. Running into the house, I gathered chairs from the dining table and other rooms, spreading them from the door, down the hallway, and into the bedroom every few feet. I returned to the car and, together with my mother, lifted him under the shoulders to the first chair. Although we had done the carrying, he was already out of breath, and I suggested we wait a few minutes before the next assault. After a short time, we made the move to the second chair, and then, a few minutes later, onto the third, where suddenly and without preparation, he vomited over me and the floor. Despite my mother’s inveterate determination to keep everything unblemished in her house, she patiently wiped away the mess, and we moved him on to another chair until he could again gain his breath. The whole trip from car to bed, nearly a half-hour in duration, seemed so absurd that I could only think of Eugène Ionesco’s play The Chairs, where the old man keeps repeating “Then at last we arrived.”
Then, at last, we put my father into the bed, where my mother undressed him and covered him with sheet and blanket. As I left the room, I was struck by how dark the bedroom was, but I didn’t dare yet approach my mother with the suggestion that she open the blinds, convinced as she was, that any sunlight might fade her beloved furniture!
That evening a woman from the hospice group came to visit us. I had seen the hospice people at work in Howard’s mother’s death; they were so helpful that the long death by cancer that Rose endured became almost a joyful experience. The nurses doled out the medicines, sang to the patient, and brightened all of our spirits, while an advisor discussed with Rose and the family how she wanted to plan for her funeral. So I was determined that my mother should have the same help. But each time the visitor suggested some of the tasks they might perform, my mother dismissed the woman’s suggestions “Oh, Douglas and I can give him his medicine. I can change his colostomy bag. I am perfectly able to make up his bed” and on and on. I tried to explain to her, with the gentle guidance of the woman from Hospice Care that their help would ease her duties, allow her more time to show her love, and somewhat relieve the vigilance with which she had had attend to him over the previous weeks. “I just don’t want people running in and out of my house,” she declared. “That would create complete havoc, and who else but me would have to clean it up.”
“You’ll have years and years to clean up after he dies,” I snapped. Immediately retreating, I patiently tried to explain to her that the nurses wouldn’t be bringing in snow or mud—or whatever else she presumed they might carry with them in their path. I spoke of the hospice’s marvelous support in the death of Howard’s mother. All to no avail. For when it came time to sign the agreement she almost literally threw the woman out!
At the door, I assured the obviously flustered girl that my mother would ultimately “come round,” suggesting she return tomorrow. My mother was furious. “You’re siding with that stranger! But this is my house and I will determine who comes and who goes out!”
I tried to assuage, protesting that I wasn’t siding with anyone, but was trying to do what was best for her. But rather than calming, she grew more angry, insisting I was fighting her, resorting to tears and running into the bedroom to complain to my dying father. As he always responded at such times, he weakly called out: “Douglas, please don’t fight with your mother. Please, don’t fight.” I stood in the doorway, vainly trying to regain the peace: “We’re not really fighting Dad. I’m not trying to hurt her.”
I left the two of them alone, realizing that my very presence had once again aroused the anger it had for so many years. “Perhaps I should leave,” I thought to myself, but then I knew there would be no one else to come to her support. My brother was psychologically unable to cope, and my sister—who lived in the other end of the State—had not found the time to come; she also was close to my father, and perhaps her absence was her way of dealing with his death.
I sat in the quiet living room, where the grandfather’s clock regularly beat-out its chimes, and read. A little while later, my mother returned. Her crisis was over. “Did you ask the woman to come back?” she asked.
“Yes, I did.”
“I didn’t like her.”
“I know, and I understand. But you will need help.”
“I’ve taken care of him now for a very long time.”
“I know.”
“Maybe they can come in for an hour or two every day.”
“That would be fine.”

As I lay in bed that night, I could hear my father calling out every so often. He wanted to go to the bathroom, we wanted to get up and move about. Each time, my mother gently mumbled a few words, and he quieted down.
At about midnight I heard my father thrashing about, muttering something; but my mother did not respond. Perhaps she finally had fallen to sleep. I quietly rose, and dressed only in gray flannel track shorts, stood at their doorway. My mother was nowhere to be seen, while my father was clearly attempting to rise up and leave the bed. I ran over to him, gently yet firmly keeping him from exiting. “You’re okay,” I said. “You stay here. You can’t walk.”
“I’ve got to pee,” he proclaimed.
“Just let it go,” I answered. “You can pee into your bag.”
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
“But you can’t,” I answered, holding him solidly in place.
He was struggling, still a fairly strong opponent. Suddenly, he looked into my face: “I know you!
You’re the stubborn one.”
I laughed. “Yes, I am. I learned it from you, I guess.”
He sank back into bed, while I went in search of my mother.
I found her sitting in the living room reclining chair, deeply asleep.
“Mom,” I called out to her. “Mother.” She did not awake.
I returned to the bedroom, where my father attempted once again to rise. I gently put him back into the bed. He was battling me once more. “Mom,” I called out. And then suddenly I realized why I had so quickly responded to the news of my father’s current condition. My mother clearly was exhausted, herself in danger of ill health. I was no longer my father’s son, but his nurse. For the second time* over our many years of contentiousness, I realized I had a role to play in our family life.
I put my father back to bed, and as he fell to sleep, I realized that I would now need to remain by his side, wide-awake, every night.

The next morning brought the first shift of hospice workers, who checked my father’s vital signs and quietly attempted to work around my mother’s hindering love. In a quiet conversation at the breakfast table the nurse reported that, although there was no way of telling how many days—or weeks for that matter—he might live on, his organs had mostly closed down. His feeling that he had to urinate arose because his stomach was filled with cancerous tissue. Although he seemed to register little pain, it was only the painkillers, the mix of morphine and other narcotic drugs we administered at regular intervals, that kept him from suffering.

When the hospice people left, I tried to explain to my mother what they had told me, but she seemed more distraught by the fact that the morphine was resulting, once more, in horrible nightmares and visions. “He can’t take that stuff, I told them.”
I now sat with him for several hours every day, delivering his medicine, while my mother served soups and, sometimes, baby food, his only sustenance. Like the young man in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers nursing his mother, I knew that every time my mother and I doled out those drugs, we were “helping” my father die, hurrying along, bit by bit, his demise.
And his nightmarish visions were disturbing, to say the least. At one moment he painfully enacted what must have been a childhood memory, overlaid with his current situation. As if he were a little boy, trapped in a school bus, he begged for me to let him off the bus. He had to pee.

“Please, sir. Please. I have to go to the bathroom. Please!”
“You’re okay,” I tried to assure him. Just go in your pants. You can do that. It’s okay. Just let loose.”
“Please, sir, please!” he repeated.

I realized that with my mother the best way to bring about any change was first simply to suggest it, asking if she might just consider the possibility. Usually a day or two later, she was ready to act. “You know,” I said, “if we don’t get a wheelchair, he’ll never be able to join the family. He’s trapped within this room. Just getting up for a while to be near to us will be far better for him.”
The next day the hospice workers brought a wheelchair—and, with my urging—a long plastic runner we placed in the hallway. Proudly, I helped my mother move him to the chair, and I wheeled him out into the living room. But we had hardly reached the table before he pleaded, “Please take me back. It hurts to sit up. Take me back to the bed.” The wheelchair, I believe, was never used again.
Sometimes, when he became restless, my mother and I sat him up on the side of the bed. Once, I saw a smile creep momentarily across his face. I joked, “I think I see a smile there, don’t you see it, mom?”
“Yes, I think I do,” she said.
And for a glorious moment he lit up before asking to be put under the covers again.

When I wasn’t at his bedside, my mother and I sat at the kitchen table, discussing, for the first time ever, sexual matters. My father had told me many times how much he loved my mother, and my mother, it was clear, adored my father—even though nearly every day of my childhood she had disparaged him. I now reported that once my father had told me how sexual my mother was, that she truly enjoyed sex and eagerly participated in it. My mother, who up that moment I had always imagined as a bit puritanical, now surprisingly responded: “Of course, that all ended with his prostate operation.”
Another afternoon, as I sat at the foot of the bed, wearing, once more, only my running shorts, my father began to flail about in obvious discomfort. My mother lay down beside him, and in a voice that seemed to belong more to James Joyce’s Molly Bloom than to Lorna Messerli, she purred, “Do you want to roll. Let’s roll then.” And like the young girl she had been when they had first met, she began to roll across the bed completely caught up in the simple pleasure of the act. “Let’s roll. Come on, let’s roll!” And together they rolled across the bed until he settled peacefully back to sleep.
I felt like a voyeur, as if I had been watching my parents—not the old couple they had become, but a young couple deeply in love—have sex. Yet, it felt so natural, I didn’t even flinch. I had to be there, for the dangers that lay ahead.
Soon after, sharing coffee with visitors, I heard a thud, and ran into the bedroom. There lay my father at the foot of the bed. After checking him for any damage, the guest and I carried him back to his imprisonment.
On the third or fourth day of our vigil, I convinced my mother to open the blinds. “It would be great if he might have something to look out at. The tree in the corner, the back yard.” A few hours later, she drew the blinds, just a little, but I am not sure my father ever cast his eyes to that little bit of nature I had won for him.
Several years after he retired my father had taken courses to work as a volunteer chaplain, and had sat up several nights at the same hospital which had diagnosed him, ready to serve as priest, minister, advisor, friend to whomever might be near death. Several times, he—a solid Presbyterian—had been asked to administer for Roman Catholic believers, the last rights. He was proud that he was able to help others, easing the pain of death for the dying and those around them.
One afternoon during these final days, I could see that my father had briefly come out of his general drug-induced con-fusion. I gently stroked his arm. “Don’t pet me!” he complained.
I pulled my hands away. “All right. I won’t.” For a short while neither of us said anything. Then I spoke: “You know, Dad, for all those years you served as chaplain you helped so many people to face death, to more comfortably die. Why can’t you use some of that wisdom for yourself. You’re dying. Why don’t you try to come to terms with that fact.”
“It doesn’t work,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”
My brother came to the house nearly every day. I could hear him in the living room speaking with my mother, but as he came into my father’s room, where I sat at the foot of the bed, he immediately burst into tears. “Keep fighting Dad,” he declared—or something to
that effect. As he left, I went to the front door to see him out.
“No, Dave, don’t tell him that. He’s dying. It won’t do any good to fight. He needs to accept it, to be given the chance to come to terms with the end of things. We’ll all need to do that.”
I don’t know if my brother understood what I had tried to tell him. He was in too much pain himself.
I called my sister: “Pat you have to come and see your father.”
“I’ve seen him. I’ve been there.”
“I know. But he’s dying now. He doesn’t have long. And if nothing else, you have to come and help mother shop for a funeral dress.”
A couple of days later, she arrived and with my mother went shopping at the local mall.
My father was having a difficult time again, insisting he had to stand. I held him down, but was unable to get back into the kitchen to prepare his drugs. Dave arrived, and I called him into the room. “Please Dave, help me. Hold him down. He can’t stand up because he’ll fall and break his leg or something worse. I have to get his medicine.”
David came forward and sat on the corner of the bed.
I hurried into the kitchen, placing the pills upon a small plate. When I returned Dave was ready to bolt. I quickly made my father swallow his medicine, and turned to my brother. “You know, kid, if you were to sit here as I do for a while every day, it’d be easier, far easier on you. You’d understand, you’d feel you were doing something good for him.”
My brother quickly escaped.
That afternoon my father again seemed to regain consciousness just for a few moments. Suddenly he looked over at me where I was sitting, for the first time appearing to recognize who I was. “You know, Doug, I’m glad you’re here. That you’ve come.”
After her exhausting trip to the store, my mother had laid down next to my father and quickly fallen into a deep sleep, in which she was now snoring. My father pointed over at his bride of fifty-eight years and added: “…As for that honyock!”
Honyock, a word that I’d heard my father use maybe only twice before in my life: a “rube” or a “simpleton,” or even, in my father’s use of it, a product of a hardscrabble farm, as his own mother had been. But it wasn’t at all meant in the negative way it was used by some, to suggest an ethnic slur. When I later reported to my mother what he had said, even she had to laugh.

Later that night, after the confusion had long returned, he awoke and asked both my mother and me, “Have you told my mother about this, about my death?” My grandmother, a strong matriarch who had made things difficult for all her daughter-in-laws, had died several years before at ninety-some years of age. This time my mother didn’t laugh, and when my father died, a few days later, she noted that his mother had won, my father having died on the dead woman’s birthday, January 25.

I had returned home to California to clear away some issues of business when my father stopped breathing. Thankfully, my sister was there to help my mother, and couple of days later I returned, as planned, for his funeral. I had been outraged over the disgustingly empty sermon preached, when my grandmother died, by a stranger who simply recounted the great events of the 20th century to family members, my several uncles and aunts, the dozens of first cousins, so I determined that I myself would give the eulogy.
My mother and siblings feared, I am certain, what I might say, and were particularly afraid that I would present an intellectualized speech that would be nearly unintelligible to family and mourners alike. But I never imagined that the eulogy was a form to display intelligence and erudition, and, accordingly, I had based my message on the simplest of events, drawing from remembrances of each family member and attempting to embrace the language used by the surrounding community with words such as “hero” and “good citizen,” etc. I spoke of my father’s high moral character, of the time he went back to the grocery store because he had been overpaid by one cent, of the fact over his many years being a school superintendent he still remembered the name of nearly every student. I described his philosophy of life as being an unusual mix of ideas from Thomas Jefferson to Horace Mann. I hinted at how difficult it was, in today’s world, to maintain such an intractable moral position as he had had. I spoke of his kindness, his gentleness. I reiterated how much he had loved and been loved by my mother, sister, brother.

I could have said, but failed to, that I loved him inordinately—and he loved me.


Los Angeles, April 23, 2008



*In my essay “The Death of the Mother” [My Year 2004] I briefly recount the other time I played an important role in my family’s existence. Having failed miserably at trying to operate a motel in Minneapolis in the late 1960s, my father was severely depressed and near suicide. I visited my parents for a week, trying to briefly restore sanity to their lives. I attempted to get my father a psychiatrist, but in the first meeting the doctor suggested that that the problem was a financial one. Indeed it was, in part; but he evidently could not see how related that to was my father’s mental health. My mother, still attempting to run the motel, was also under great stress—mostly from her suffering husband. Soon after I left, they packed up and escaped back to Iowa—their only alternative, so it seemed to them. In fact it restored their health, and ultimately, they won a court case, retrieving some of the money which they had invested.

Los Angeles, May 1, 2008